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Miriam Thaggert’s enlightening work, Images of Black Modernism, investigates how artists of the Harlem Renaissance responded to the question posed by the February 1926 issue of Crisis, “The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?” Art consumers outside of Harlem, the majority of them white, were drawn to the more scandalous depictions of African American life. Thaggert examines how the various visual and verbal forms of the Negro employed by Harlem artists complicate and transform such depictions, exploring how their works “organize and structure the valuations of race and how the visual constructions of blackness are articulated, reproduced, and guaranteed through the written word” (3). Focusing primarily on fiction and photography from 1922 to 1938, Black Modernism studies the work of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Wallace Thurman, Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, and Aaron Siskind. Thaggert argues that by experimenting with various “visual and verbal techniques” for representing blackness, the “form of the modern black emerges” from the work of these artists via the productive tension between the “materiality of the body evoked by stereotypical representations of blackness” and “the intangibility of other forms of black expression.”
Black Modernism’s strengths become evident in its discussion of how Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Schuyler’s Black No More (1931) represent race as visual constructions. Thaggert argues that Passing attempts to “resituate the black body” by “exploiting the intangible value given to small details” through fashion choices (67). Black Modernism contrasts the failures in reading practices within Larsen’s novel—particularly the novel’s public’s failure to “read” (67) Clare’s racial passing because of her fashion choices—to the supposed failure of Leonard Rhinelander to read that his wife, Alice Jones, was black before her marriage into his white, upper-class family in New York City’s famous 1925 Rhinelander divorce case. Jones’s body is put on display for the court, to prove her race, and Rhinelander loses the case when the jury finds, based on Jones’s disrobed, physical body, that he could not have overlooked his wife’s race, but on her death certificate her race is ambiguously not noted, presumably because of how her clothed body was read in public outside the jury room. Black Modernism deftly ties together the fact that how one dresses or displays the body can be read as an attempt to “concretize the subtle, elusive elements of race, class, and gender into recognizable and readable protocols” (69), but Larsen’s novel “suggests that, indeed, there are codes that are not ‘essential’ qualities of a race but [End Page 202] are easily imitated, mastered, and performed and just as easily signify one race (or gender or class) rather than another” (70).
While Thaggert’s discussion of Passing investigates how the body, regardless of color, can be coded via style and fashion, in Black Modernism’s chapter on Schuyler’s Black No More, the change is not on the skin but in the skin. Thaggert insightfully argues that Schuyler’s work deploys an aesthetic that is only “surface, dependent on narratives of bodily and racial difference” (90). In his essay, “The Negro-Art Hokum,” Schuyler argues that “language and cultural expressions are regional rather than racial,” and that an African American is “‘merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon’” (91). This theory is tested within his novel, for the medical process that lightens Max Disher’s skin does not change his habits or speech. As a result, Schuyler’s novel reveals an anxiety in the absence of blackness, for the absence of racial difference simply creates new social and cultural divisions. When Schuyler’s “lampblacking” theory comes to pass in the novel as two whites with African blood employ blackface in an attempt to pass, but are discovered to be white and lynched regardless, Black No More ultimately signifies a return to “the privileges of color” in an inverted form (110). Ultimately, Thaggert suggests that Schuyler’s satire itself is hollow, making it an interesting companion to...